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Children of the Cornfields
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Children of the Cornfields

A federal law allows children as young as 12 to work in the fields when school is out, and for many migrant families this summer opportunity represents much of their yearly income. The cornfields represent the hopes and heartaches of these families, who are struggling in a cycle of generational poverty.

Videographer Sam Vega spent a summer traveling with migrant laborers from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas to Illinois, where they detassel corn. His mini-documentary, produced for Hoy, a Spanish-language media outlet that is part of the Chicago Tribune, follows a father and his teenage sons, a 19-year-old single mother and her baby and a 16-year-old girl dreaming of college.

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Sam’s Story Behind the Story
During the summer of 2012 investigative reporter Jeff Kelly Lowenstein and I would drive out to Champaign County, Illinois to document demographic shifts for a collaborative project between Hoy and CU Citizen Access, a nonprofit investigative news organization based at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

During those trips, we learned about the Nightingale Camp, a massive former Air Force hospital in Rantoul that housed hundreds of migrant workers. Inside, families of primarily Mexican-American descent from Texas and Florida shared rooms equipped with bunk beds, portable electric burners to cook, canned goods and bags of clothes they gathered from community donations. They traveled thousands of miles to work in “La Espiga”, the cornfields of Illinois.

It was surprising to see children working alongside their parents in the fields. But a federal law that dates back to 1938 made it perfectly legal for kids as young as 12 to perform some agricultural labor.

In 2013, the team at Hoy decided to look deeper at economics and education of these children. So I flew out to Texas in late June following a tip from Miguel Keberlein Gutierrez, the supervisory attorney at the Illinois Migrant Legal Assistance Project, that migrant families would be packing their bags and begin migrating to the states where they’d be working.

The search of a family during those preparations, and youth in particular, turned out to be very difficult. The lawyers, teachers and social workers I met with in the Rio Grande Valley, Texas, pointed out that migrants in general are hard to contact. Eventually, my time and luck ran out in Texas.

So in July I went back to Rantoul and waited for families to arrive. I lived at the Days Inn Rantoul hotel three to four days a week for four weeks, going inside the migrant labor camp and the cornfields with my camera to document as much as possible.
I learned quickly that some parents worry that talking about their experience could compromise their jobs.

I reached out to reporters and filmmakers who produced stories on migrant working children in the past. Stephen Stock, investigative reporter of the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit, suggested I put the camera down and break bread with the families first.

I took his advice and visited the camps daily, without my camera. I noted events in the area and introduced myself and explained my assignment at two Migrant Family Welcoming Night events hosted at the Multicultural Community Center of Rantoul and at East Lawn Elementary School, one of several sites in Illinois offering classes for migratory students.

One evening a group of guys who just got home from working in the fields were sitting outside the Nightingale Camp on a bench trying to scrape money together to buy two pizzas. After 20 minutes of watching them unsuccessfully collect the $20 they needed I offered to pitch in and bought one of them. This simple gesture earned me a seat at the bench for the rest of the night and established sources for the rest of my time there.

I was no longer just a reporter. Hungry, far from home and nothing but work to do I empathized with their situation.
I explained the purpose of my project to the landlord of the camp, who allowed me access to film his tenants, much to my surprise. In 2012 this same landlord pulled up to the former hospital hastily in a pickup truck directing our group off the property. The landlord and Keberlein argued about whether we could legally stay and eventually we did just that.

Monsanto, the multi-billion dollar agriculture company, leased the Nightingale Camp to house its migrant workers. So I reached out to Pat Geneser, the migrant seasonal labor manager for the company and who granted me access to the fields.

During the following weeks rice, tacos and sometimes beer would be offered to me by the workers at the camp. One day I was even offered a $5 haircut, another opportunity to foster trust. This would be the haircut I sported to my cousin’s wedding the following day.

I also gained access to film inside the school providing the migrant education program was arranged with the superintendent of the Rantoul City School district #137, Michelle Ramage. Unfortunately, an abrupt notice given by the district’s legal advisers required me to undergo a background check before continuing to report inside of the school during the program. By the time the background check cleared it was the last day of school.

I’m looking forward to digging deeper into the educational realities of migrant working children through data gathered through the Migrant Student Records Exchange Initiative, a federal clearinghouse for migrant youth academic and health information records. I stumbled onto this program late in my research and think there is another series of great stories there.

Having the support of the Institute for Justice Journalism fellowship for this project helped me gain a deeper perspective in my reporting on migrant workers. It also allowed me to pursue a story I would not have had the chance to otherwise. I was challenged to be as intrepid as possible and for that I am grateful. The week I spent in Oklahoma was crucial to my understanding of the type of investment in time I’d need to make to develop a multi-layered story.

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